A Culinary Conversation

Kevin Rathbun and Big Mike Geier Talk Food & Music

Chef Kevin Rathbun learns a few tricks from musician "Big Mike" Geier. Photo by Tim Song

Chef Kevin Rathbun learns a few tricks from musician “Big Mike” Geier. Photo by Tim Song

They say they met through the “Tall Guy Club,” then bonded over bocce ball at Leon’s Full Service in Decatur. Two good-timin’ Colossi astride the Southeast’s cultural landscape, Atlanta chef Kevin Rathbun (6’5”) and entertainer Big Mike Geier (6’8”) bring some outsize, and complementary, talents to the table—just make sure it’s a sturdy countertop that can withstand some vigorous dancing from platform shoes and a Beaujolais spill or two.

Rathbun, whose toque is garnished with just every laurel it can hold—a stint as Emeril Lagasse’s sous chef at Commander’s Palace, a run on Iron Chef America, “best restaurant” and other nods from Esquire, Travel + Leisure, Bon Appetit, and the James Beard Foundation—operates three vaunted kitchens on the fringe of Inman Park: Rathbun’s, Kevin Rathbun’s Steak, and Krog Bar.

His buddy, Big Mike, helped usher in the swing revival, fronting The Useless Playboys, who toured with Southern Culture on the Skids, Reverend Horton Heat, and El Vez. In 1995, Geier moved to Atlanta and started Kingsized, a hellzapoppin’, 13-piece band that covers swing, soul, and rock ’n’ roll, with a special reverence for Elvis Presley. You may have seem him steal a scene in the movie Good Intentions, and he recently has added juggling to his repertoire for Seattle’s Teatro Zinzanni, billed as “the Kit-Kat Club on acid.” Not so much a “tribute artist” as an interpretive “song stylist,” Geier gussies up Southern Gothicka with old-school Ziegfeld production values, helped by his wife, Shannon Newton, director of the burlesque troupe Dames Aflame.  Their “Elvis Royale” spectacles pack the Variety Playhouse twice a year, commemorating the King’s birthday in January and his death in August.

Last year, Rathbun and Big Mike collaborated on a YouTube video to promote Elvis Royale, with the chef, flashing a TCB lightning-bolt logo on his whites and swiveling his mighty pelvis around the grill, fixing some Jack Daniels-flambé peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches.

Georgia Music sat down with these two scenesters for a chewy, free-range, lightly sauced, over-easy and salted-to-taste conversation.

Kevin Rathbun, behind the bar at Rathbun's, and Big Mike Geier enjoy an afternoon glass of wine. Photo by Tim Song.

Kevin Rathbun, behind the bar at Rathbun’s, and Big Mike Geier enjoy an afternoon glass of wine. Photo by Tim Song.

 On the sustenance of their early years

Rathbun: I grew up in Kansas City, where my dad, whose name was Max, played alto sax for the Jimmy Caton Orchestra—he was the only white musician with 17 black guys, and he sat in with some incredible cats before they really were known, people like Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich and Lawrence Welk. My dad was one hip guy. On Sundays, he’d host a barbecue, and musicians would just drift in with their instruments—10 or 15 horn players—to eat and play all day. And my mother was a maître d’ for years—she was 6’2”, 6’3”—in a tuxedo and bowtie, doing the big supper club thing, so she’d hire bands, and people would come in and do lounge acts and stuff, and she always was getting pictures and bringing autographs home. We all spent a lot of time in dark, seedy lounges that had lots of vinyl albums. So I grew up immersed in jazz and eventually became a Motown freak, too.

Big Mike: I was born in Philadelphia, and we moved to Richmond when I was a little kid, and I left there when I was 18, and I’ve been living in Atlanta ever since, so this is my home. I’ve got red clay in my feet now.  I didn’t start playing music until I was almost 30, so even though I have a very rich memory of music, it was all albums from my father, and my sisters. So I heard The Beatles, and rock ’n’ roll, and of course, Frank Sinatra, growing up. A lot of my most visceral music and food memories developed when I was an adult. So it’s really odd, because I feel like I’m a first-generation performer; that’s why I’m so hungry to create this thing where I can pass it on. Even though music is my main thing, it’s like “music and food,” and then everything else falls in after that. I cook more than I play music because I cook my own meals, so I’m constantly touching food and learning about food and preparing it and watching other people prepare food. So I really do think that it’s in that order, what I like to do, and I’m constantly learning how how little I know about either.

Mike Geier and Kevin Rathbun. Photo by Tim Song

Mike Geier and Kevin Rathbun. Photo by Tim Song

On the ancient dialectic of music and food

Rathbun: Cooking is entertaining. We are entertainers. Mike, you make them happy by singing and showing them what’s happening, and music and drinks and getting on with it, and then all during that they are eating too, so we’re all making them happy. My thing about music and food is that it all comes together, and the people leave happy. That instant gratification. It’s why I’m in the business, it’s one of the best businesses, just to make people happy, and it’s not a factory, it’s not anything like that, it’s just filling their stomachs, and making them feel good. If there’s good music going along with that, it’s solid. And they dance the same, they dance together, and that’s the beauty of it.

Big Mike: There’s no mystery to it—you go to a restaurant, there is always music there, and if you go to a music venue, I personally think there should always be some sort of food there. They give the same feelings. … And, man, when you’re touring, there’s nothing like a sandwich made by somebody else. (laughs) It’s a joke we have that we call it a ‘bandwich.’ We go to a gig, and they provide food, and there’s sandwiches out. We’re thinking, “These sandwiches are terrible, but they are awesome because somebody else made them. Now I feel like a rich guy.”

 On the itinerant, tribal communities of cooks and players

Big Mike: Both fields attract similar people. Whenever I’ve gone back in a kitchen, I’ve always thought there was a similarity between the people I play music with, and the people that cook in a lot of restaurants. You know, these guys are all remarkably alike, and alive.

Rathbun: They’re both Gypsy-esque. And they’re both street smart. They’ve been around, they’ve been high, they’ve been low, they’ve been grunged out, and … I can attest that we get a lot of cooks like that.  They are transient; they want to move around, they want to see some things. And they can go to Paris, to Istanbul, to Chicago, they could go down to New Orleans and find a job. I think that the music business is a lot like that, where you aren’t pigeonholed. You can find the opportunities to see a lot of things, and I think that for a lot of people in the music and food business it’s the same.

Big Mike: And there’s also a community thing that transcends the language and culture, where one cook knows another cook. Musicians work the same way, like even if you play this other kind of music that is foreign to me, and there is this other guy over here who doesn’t play music, we are more connected. It’s like we are part of the same tribe even though we are far removed, and you sort of recognize it in a way, and I think kitchen guys are similar. Of course, there is a lot of competition in each of those fields, but at the end of the day there’s that bond.

Rathbun: Ideally, you help each other grow and keep getting to the next level. Musicians play here and there in different bands and learn different techniques that they carry with them to the next show. In the kitchen, I like to teach my people how to pass that on. Show them where they got their character, how they got it. I like to give my sous chefs or my people props on trying to get to the next level, and I think in the music business there’s a lot of the same: these guys learning how to play, riffing off different people all the time, moving until they get to that place where they want to be, and that’s a good place.

 On the lingua franca of music and food

Big Mike: Even if I don’t understand the language you are speaking, we understand food, and we understand music. We went to Germany once to get this bass player, who was very German, didn’t speak but just a little bit of English, and we were trying to communicate with him. So, we are at a sound check, and there he is, he’s gonna play bass with us, and I’ve got to explain to him how these songs go. Of course, I sent him all the recordings, but he didn’t listen to any of them. He was too busy drinking that apple wine—Bavarian apple wine, he loved the stuff. So I’m trying to explain to him how to play this stuff, and then we just did the gig. We put English and German aside, and we just spoke musically, and it was a great show. I think he understood exactly what we were doing. And, in the kitchen, it’s like: “Let’s just cook. That’s an egg. You know what it is, I know what it is, OK? Let’s go.”

Rathbun: Let’s make it dance.

Mike Geier leads the Kingsized Rock 'N Roll Orchestra at the group's semi-annual Elvis Royale extravaganza at Variety Playhouse. Photo courtesy Emily Butler

Mike Geier leads the Kingsized Rock ‘N Roll Orchestra at the group’s semi-annual Elvis Royale extravaganza at Variety Playhouse. Photo courtesy Emily Butler

Big Mike: Musicians and cooks share a vocabulary and a weird connection that I can’t really describe. Music can be ‘swampy,’ just like gumbo can taste ‘swampy’ in a good way. Language doesn’t do it justice, in a way. The moment you get a word to describe it, you are only describing a fragment. Imagine a gem that has countless facets, and you come up with a word to describe the entire experience, yet you are only describing this one little facet of it. It’s like love. You just know it. And if you try to analyze it too much, it’s not that anymore. It’s like a cloud—as soon as you try to put your hand through it, it’s gone. So you just sort of let it be a cloud.

Sometimes out there the food is terrible because of a lot of different variables, could be part food, part service, whatever, but it’s not very hard to find a pretty good meal. But I’ve found its very hard to find a just brilliant meal, like where the chef’s beating heart is just in this, whatever it may be, and I’m on the search for that. In music, too. You can go online and find countless, “That’s a pretty good song, that’s also a pretty good song,” but then you find the one that just takes your breath away. That’s the … not quite the holy grail, but that’s what I’m looking for. And I have to say, those meals I’ve found that are like that, were in remarkable places, and sometimes not in really nice places. I’ll think, “That little lady made this? Well, shit!” After that I can’t ever put anything else in my mouth because I’d be cheating on that meal. If I ever let any more music go in these ears, I’d be cheating on that song, that soulmate of a thing I found. Of course, I’m a performer, so I’m probably overdramatizing it.

Rathbun: Then the cloud goes away. But you can always look for it again.

 On the ‘Proust Effect,’ or how food and music evoke powerful memories

Rathbun: My most powerful music-food associations are fried chicken and gospel. When I grew up in Kansas City, there was this place called Stroud’s that did pan-fried chicken and they always had this woman in her seventies in there just wailing at you while you ate your pan-fried chicken and mashed potatoes and cinnamon rolls that just made you so full you couldn’t move anymore. And so now every time I eat fried chicken I just think of that woman on that piano, playing “Amazing Grace” or just really kicking it up. Good memories like that. And that’s just one of many memories like that from down the road. Like the jam sessions in my dad’s basement—when I eat barbecue, I think of jazz, I think of blues, that’s just a classic combination.

Big Mike: I have countless food memories of touring. Music allowed me to get introduced to foods I might not have ever been introduced to otherwise. Like, the first time I had pho, I thought I was gonna lose my mind. The first time I went to New Orleans, on tour, we went to Sister Alberta’s, and it was this lady who had a kitchen in her house, and you could go in and get red beans and rice, little lunch things, just in a part of her house. And she just cooked there, with her husband who’d played gospel music in the ’60s… and she’s very welcoming, this little old lady, she was like Yoda. She makes this pan-fried chicken, obviously cooked in sausage grease, it was just so overwhelming, and red beans and rice and some other things, but the chicken was really the star. And she had this old jukebox in there that had her own records from her old gospel bands, on 45s. And this guy’s just over there hitting the buttons on it, and she tells him to go get some Chek Root Beer, like the value-brand Chek sodas. So we are drinking cold root beer, eating fried chicken, and the music, if I didn’t play music I wouldn’t be experiencing that. Same thing as the first time I ate soft-shell crab, that would never have happened if I wasn’t playing music.

Rathbun: If there’s a food song that sticks with me,  it’s “Eggplant” by Michael Franks, it goes like [singing] “My baby eats an eggplant, 19 different ways. Sometimes she even eats it with mayonnaise.” So everytime I think of eggplant and mayonnaise I think of Michael Franks. This is from when I was, like, 19, too. So when musicians incorporate food into their songs, it’s something that really resonates with me.

The musician and the chef. Photo by Tim Song

The musician and the chef. Photo by Tim Song

 On their preferred last meal and song

Rathbun: What would I want for my last meal? That’s tough, but I think I would have to go with my mom’s fried chicken if I could have that over again. I really do—just get back to the roots. If she could just come alive again for a minute and fry up some chicken, I’d be all over it. Simple, just simple. And the people—I’d have to have the right people there, that’s gotta set the stage. And the music in the background, I’d have to say a little Coltrane. Any Motown.

Big Mike: Spare ribs and “Hazel’s Hips” by Oscar Brown Jr., his song about a waitress. I hear “Hazel’s Hips” in my  head almost every day—she’s just this hot waitress, and how she comes over and brings your food to your table, and everyone is all gaga over her, but she is just like (sniff): “You ain’t got what it takes, pal.” So it would have to be spare ribs, delivered by Hazel.

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